- Associated Press - Monday, October 12, 2015

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - A Rhode Island mayor wants to recoup the money his town is spending to educate students from neighboring communities who are illegally enrolled.

Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena is pushing a proposed law that would bill homeowners in his town who allow their address to be used so students who live outside the town can enroll. The homeowners would be responsible for the education costs, currently about $14,000 per year per student; nearly double that amount for special education services.

“I can’t put my head down on the pillow at night knowing people are ripping the system off,” Polisena said. “They’re stealing from the taxpayers, and I’m not going to allow that.”

Under the proposal, officials could put a lien on their property if the owner doesn’t pay and permanently revoke a homestead exemption, which is a 20 percent discount on a homeowner’s property taxes, Polisena said. The town wouldn’t penalize renters with children in school.

Council President Robert Russo said he expects the ordinance to pass Tuesday.

Polisena estimates that 200 to 300 out-of-town students attend Johnston schools illegally. Residents have told him they’ve seen parents who don’t live in their neighborhood dropping off kids at the bus stop, he said. The Democratic mayor thinks most of those parents are using an address of a friend or relative in Johnston to register their child.

Officials say many of these “boundary hopping” students come from neighboring Providence, where state education statistics show student-to-teacher ratios are higher and test scores are lower.

Polisena said it has gotten so bad that a parent tried to register a child this year using the address of a local Chinese restaurant.

The American Association of School Administrators found that school districts nationwide have strengthened their screening of non-resident students in recent years. Once illegally enrolled students are identified, many districts simply ask them to leave.

Dan Beardsley, executive director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, said he hasn’t heard of any other Rhode Island municipalities trying to get their money back for educating out-of-district students.

In Cranston, city and school officials have discussed how to stem the number of students illegally registered, but it’s difficult to prove that people don’t live locally and it requires a considerable amount of time and effort, Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse said.

Nota-Masse estimated that 50 to 70 students in Cranston schools were sent back to their hometowns last year. Parents must sign an affidavit stating their child’s residency, but the city has never prosecuted anyone for lying, she added.

“I’m not sure how the proposal in Johnston will hold up legally, but if it does … I’m sure that would be something many other districts would look at as an example,” she said. “I can understand the mayor of Johnston being so frustrated.”

Polisena said the town solicitor wrote the proposed ordinance so it could withstand a court challenge. The mayor is confident it’s legal and binding.

Johnston has about 3,100 students. Johnston Superintendent Bernard Di Lullo Jr. agreed that boundary hopping needs to be addressed, though he said the district must be mindful of extenuating circumstances.

Districts must admit homeless children, for example. And under state law, a student whose residence changes midsemester is allowed to complete the semester, and students who are in their senior year, or about to begin it, can finish.

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